Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) have praised Eileen Sawyer who died recently as one of the great personalities who diligently provided unwavering leadership to the human rights movement in Zimbabwe at various times of need.
"She discharged her duties in pre- and post-independence Zimbabwe through her deep and passionate involvement in assisting the less privileged, minority groups, the downtrodden, the racially discriminated, the vulnerable and the marginalised in the Zimbabwean society, especially through her role as the head of the Legal Resources Foundation and at the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum.
Sawyer is also credited and remembered for forging a positive relationship between the government and the Legal Resources Foundation in terms of offering training, legal publications and other services that improved access to justice for ordinary Zimbabweans.
ZLHR worked closely with her as a founding member of the NGO Forum and called her "a woman of great insight, dignity and personality" in a message of condolance and tribute. Her humility, commitment and passion for assisting her fellow citizens, stood out, said ZLHR.
Born in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, Sawyer studied social work at the University of Rhodes, and worked for many years as a social worker in Cape Town before coming to the then Southern Rhodesia in the early 1960s to set up the Council of Social Service and the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB).
Tony Reeler wrote in The Independent that the CAB had an open doors policy and social awareness and provided "a small outpost of care in a growing climate of racial intolerance." She and a band of dedicated volunteers provided much-needed assistance to all who came to CAB’s doors.
She married a former junior minister in Roy Welensky’s federal government and and opponent of the Unilateral Declaration of Independence, Sidney Sawyer, who died in 1981. They had no children.
Sawyer established the Legal Aid Clinic, which still continues to operate and later the Legal Resources Foundation (LRF) in 1983, which she led until her retirement in 2002, providing legal advice, training of paralegals, publishing law reports, and a host of other valuable services.
The LRF became the largest human rights organisation in Zimbabwe. Under her stewardship, the LRF developed an excellent working relationship with the government, but the relationship soured when the LRF (with the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace) began their investigations of the Gukurahundi massacres.
Eileen and Mike Auret oversaw the publication of Breaking the Silence report, and the public exposure of the gross human rights violations that took place in Midlands and Matebeleland in the 1980s - a report which was described by Amnesty International as exemplary.
On retirement she became director of the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum formed following the food riots in 1998, and she continued working as a consultant for them until her death. The forum grew from eight founder member organisations to the 19 organisations today, and aquired an international reputation.
Reeler also described her as a stickler for correctness in all things, an assiduous editor. Others have described as the “grandmother” of human rights in Zimbabwe, but all are agreed that she was graceful, the epitome of the lady of times past, a strong, moral, and deeply religious person.